CUNYAC All-Star Ilona Stoyko returns as a junior to lead CSI's continued climb

To hear Head Coach Paul Ricciardi tell it, the College of Staten Island women’s tennis squad will be doing what it has always done under his leadership:  set their sights squarely on a CUNYAC title in 2012.  This time, however, the coach’s remarks are not just lip-service, as he feels the team is in place to contend for a title, one that CSI has been without since 1999.

“Every year we focus our energy on winning the CUNY’s and moving forward,” said Ricciardi.  “This year that is our outlook again, and this time I feel we have a roster, top-to-bottom, that can do incredible things.”

What has the coach so upbeat and optimistic?  For starters, the Dolphins boast five returning players, including CUNYAC All-Star Ilona Stoyko and sophomore Sophia Varriano, who both stood cemented at the top of the lineup a year ago.  An early-season injury could leave Varriano sidelined for a long stretch in 2012, but with fellow returners Jean Baak, Demi-Jean Martorano, and Jacqueline Jamaleddine all aiding in the leadership initiative, CSI has some bona fide tennis talent leading the way.  The collection will also be joined by senior Nancy Almazo, who returns to the Dolphins after a 2010 season that saw her go undefeated when playing at the No. 4 position.  The crafty mix has Ricciardi pumped.

“I think after a year of knowing what it takes to be at the top of our conference, and getting a chance to travel last spring, our players are ready to work that much harder of reaching our goals for a CUNY championship,” said the coach.  “That mindset is going to be important to us.”

Stoyko in particular impressed a great deal a year ago, boasting a 10-5 singles mark (6-1 CUNY), appearing also at the No. 1 Doubles spot in 14 of 17 matches a year ago.  Varriano showed quality at the top of the frame, while sophomore Baak posted an 8-5 mark, which included a 6-2 record at her natural No. 4 position.  Ricciardi will be leaning on their production in 2012, especially as injuries begin to clear and the team plays deep into October.

“Being able to travel in the spring to see and compete against some top quality programs, our athletes have shown that they have an appreciation for what a national caliber team should be and I can already see the commitment,” Ricciardi said.

The Dolphins finished 7-11 a year ago and after a solid CUNYAC quarterfinal win over City College of New York, the team was up-ended by Brooklyn College in semifinal play.  The quick exit had the coaching staff intent on bolstering the roster in 2012, and Ricciardi is happy with the result.  Notre Dame Academy’s No. 1 Singles ace Sabrina Bragerton-Nasert should slide in comfortably at the top of the lineup or near it, as can Mediha Mulla, who also was a No. 1 Singles player at Susan Wagner High School.  Together with Nataliya Zitser, the new faces could inject quality in the lineup. The Dolphins are looking at their deepest team in memory, according to their head coach.

“Our first year players will help us, mainly by giving us a fresh perspective and invigorating approach to the season,” said the sixth-year coach. “Our practice level has been extraordinary and our first year players are a big reason for the drive forward.  Our positivity is at an all-time high.”

The depth will be counted on, especially with a young team like the Dolphins, one that boasts only Almazo as a senior.  That means the best is yet to come from the Dolphins.  Competition will be feverish, and that’s exactly what Ricciardi wants to see in his team.

“Our lineup from top to bottom is pushing one another and we are getting some very good production so far.  It’s hard to say right now how good we can be,” tells the coach. “We will have quality needed at every position to be competitive, what remains to be seen is how we progress, staying healthy, and keeping our focus.”

With confidence at an all-time high, Ricciardi and his staff understand that the road to a CUNYAC title will still be extraordinarily complex.  Perennial powers Hunter College and Baruch College should be back to reclaim their positioning in the conference along with Brooklyn College, which finished as last year’s regular season champions.  Still, Ricciardi knows that his team has the pieces collected to complete the puzzle.  How they piece things together from here remains to be seen.

“Having as young of a team as we do, we are just looking for constant improvement,” Ricciardi said.  “The conference is always mixed with quality teams and every day presents a new challenge.  If we remain upbeat, confident, and ready to win, I think we will be a very difficult opponent for other teams to face.”

The Dolphins will open their season on Saturday, facing non-conference St. Joseph’s College (LI) at 1pm at the CSI Tennis Center.  They open up the conference slate of their season against on September 12, travelling to face City College of New York at 4pm.  All CUNYAC matches are FREE and CLUE Certified for all students.